This letter is dedicated to the memory of my grandfather, Mr. Yosef Tall (Talesnick).
"When you eat the labor of your hands, you are praiseworthy, and it is well with you." (Psalm 128:2)
In this series, we have explored how tzedakah - the Divine mandate to share our resources with the needy - is to be viewed as a God-given right of those who are in genuine need. Does this Torah outlook encourage dependency and laziness on the part of the Jewish poor? To answer this question, we need to explore other Torah values which were stressed by our people throughout the ages. For example, the following statements from the Talmud encourage people with very limited resources to do whatever they can in order to avoid becoming dependent on others, and these statements also became popular folk sayings among the Jewish people:
1. "Love work!" (Pirkei Avos 1:10)
2. "Make your Shabbos into a weekday (by avoiding expensive Shabbos delights) and do not become dependent on other people." (Pesachim 112a)
3. Flay a carcass in the marketplace (a form of menial work), and earn a living!" (Pesachim 113a)
Maimonides cites the above teachings from the Talmud, and he states that a person has an obligaton to do menial work, if necessary, rather than to take tzedakah (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Giving to the Poor 10:18). Maimonides also reminds us, however, that there are some people, such as the sick and the elderly, who may not be capable of doing work; moreover, needy individuals who cannot work are obligated to take tzedekah, as they are forbidden to endanger their own lives by depriving themselves of the necessities of life (ibid 10:19).
The Tribe of Levi serves as a different example of people who are to receive financial support. During the biblical period, the People of Israel supported the Tribe of Levi, which included a special branch of this tribe known as "kohanim" - ministers. This is because the Tribe of Levi was not given a portion of the land; instead, they were to live in their own cities which were scattered throughout the land, and they were to devote themselves to the study and teaching of Torah. The members of the tribe therefore received special tithes from the rest of Israel. A reference to the special role of the Tribe of Levi is found in the following blessing that Moses gave to this tribe (including the Kohanim) before the nation entered the Promised Land: "They shall teach Your ordinances to Jacob and Your Torah to Israel; they shall place incense before Your presence, and burnt offerings on Your Altar" (Deut. 33:10). A modern version of this tradition is the stipend given to adult students of Torah which enable these students to continue their studies and become Torah scholars who can teach and guide others. These stipends help to produce not only rabbis, judges, and teachers for Jewish schools; they also help to produce Torah-educated lay leaders who serve as teachers and activists in their synagogues and communities. For example, one can find successful professionals and business people who studied Torah as adults for a few years with the help of stipends, before starting graduate school or their livelihood. They would study at an educational institute known as a "kollel" - an institute which also enables married students to continue their Torah study. They later became lay leaders and Torah teachers in their communities, where they give classes in the evenings and/or on Shabbos and the Festivals. In addition, their Torah knowledge and commitment strengthens the spiritual atmosphere of the community.
With the exception of the cases cited above, Jewish tradition encourages people to work for a living and not become dependent on others. This attitude is discussed in a book titled "Life Is With People" by Mark Zborowski and Elizabeth Herzog. These authors did a study after World War 2 of American Jews who had grown up in the villages and towns of Eastern Europe that were known as shtetls. The authors worked under the guidance of the noted anthropologist, Margaret Meade, and the book is based on interviews with people who experienced life in the shtetl. The following is an excerpt from the book's chapter on tzedekah:
Yet, though it is correct, there is an intense repugnance to asking material aid, and even the lowly will suffer much and go to great lengths to avoid it. There is comparatively little reluctance to turn to those who are wiser and more learned for advice and instruction, or for mediation in solving disputes. To ask for money or goods, however, is "something else." There is small fear of pauperizing a population accustomed to regard charity as social justice, because to receive can be so painful and to give can be so rewarding.
The authors add:
The horror of being the recipient rather than the donor is expressed in proverbs, sayings, even in prayers. The Talmud advises, "Make your Sabbath like an ordinary weekday, but do not have recourse to the assistance of your fellow creatures." The prayer after meals includes the plea, "We beseech Thee, O Lord Our God, let us not be in need either of the gifts of mortals, or of their loans, but only of Thy helping hand which is full, open, holy, and ample, so that we may not be ashamed or confounded for ever and ever." The family faced with economic problems repeat again and again, "May we not be ashamed, and may we not be in need of people."
Nevertheless, note the authors, due to severe economic discrimination and persecution which drove Jews from their homes, some Jews were forced to become beggars. These beggars were known in Yiddish as shnorers, and although it was considered a mitzvah to give to a shnorer, the average Jew would do everything possible to avoid being a shnorer (ibid).
We should not, however, give tzedekah money to someone who is not genuinely in need. The officials of a tzedekah fund therefore have the right to investigate the legitimacy of any requests from individuals who are unknown to them. Nevertheless, if a stranger asks for food, then we do not investigate, but we meet his or her need immediately, as there is a possible danger to life if a starving person has to wait for food. (See the Mishneh Torah of Maimonides, Seder Zeraim, Laws of Giving to the Poor 7:6.) I heard from my teachers that this possible danger may be a reason why we do not make a blessing before performing the mitzvah of tzedakah, as the slightest delay in helping a starving person could be dangerous to life.
May the Compassionate One give us the resources and the wisdom to give tzedekah in a proper way.
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
Related Teachings and Comments:
1. The Torah relates that Noah sent a dove from the ark to see whether the waters of the flood subsided. And it is written, "The dove came back to him in the evening and behold! It had plucked an olive leaf with its mouth" (Genesis 8:11). Our sages find in the dove's choice of the olive leaf a message of relevance to human beings. It's as if she was saying: "Let my food be bitter as an olive and provided by the hand of the Holy One, Blessed Be He, and not sweet as honey, but provided by the hand of flesh and blood" (Rashi). This teaching comes to remind us that it is better to receive our sustenance from the Creator through our own work than to depend on the gifts of human beings.
2. The authors of "Life Is With People" describe how Jewish children were trained at an early age to become "givers" and not "takers"; thus, they write:
Children are trained to the habit of giving. A father will let his son give alms to the beggar instead of handing them over directly. A child is very often put in charge of the weekly dole at home, when the beggars make their customary rounds.
3. The authors of "Life is With People" also note that despite the anti-Jewish persecution, the Jews of Eastern Europe - the majority of whom were poor - would also warmly give tzedekah to needy Gentiles in their area. The culture of the Jewish people was a "culture of compassion"; thus, the authors write:
A variety of proverbs, sayings, and comments, define the readiness to do good deeds as an earmark of the "real Jew": "One knows a Jew by his pity," it is said; one knows him by his "Yiddish heart" - soft, warm, open to appeal.
4. The book "The Tzedekah Treasury" by Rabbi Avrohom Chaim Feuer (ArtScroll) cites the following teaching of the Chofetz Chaim: If you are told that a recipient of tzedekah is not really needy, you are nevertheless obligated to continue to give him tzedekah until his true status has been verified by careful inquiry. We do not rely on rumors as an excuse to stop giving.
5. Chanukah begins on Tuesday night, December 7th. The following website contains explanations of this holiday and its customs, along with related teachings and stories: www.aish.com . In addition to the highlighted Chanukah stories, press down on the "Chanukah" section for more articles.
Hazon - Our Universal Vision: www.shemayisrael.co.il/publicat/hazon/